a real gem
For some years Bampton Classical Opera Company have been prospecting in the vaults of neglected opera and this time they have unearthed a real gem.
Georg Anton Benda (1722– 1795) who is hardly a familiar name even in operatic circles, came from a large Bohemian family of musicians and produced more than a dozen singspiel operas in the course of his career. He enjoyed considerable success and the most popular of his operas continued to be performed regularly in Europe for the best part of a century, but Bampton’s production is believed to be the UK premiere of this one.
Julie und Romeo, as it is entitled on some copies of the score, was written for the court of Duke Frederick in the Thuringian town of Gotha. There was a culturally sophisticated audience but the theatre’s musical resources were on a modest scale. A drastic curtailment of the plot was called for, discarding the grand ball scene, the dramatic confrontation between the rival families and the duel. With no first class male singer available, even the famous balcony scene was axed!
The opera begins after the lovers are married, with Juliet sharing her fears with her confidante, Laura. These two characters dominate the first two acts – indeed Juliet is on stage for the entire opera. Benda did have two excellent sopranos at his command, his pupil Sophia Preysing (Juliet) and his young daughter Juster, who clearly boasted a fine coloratura (Laura), and Bampton were equally fortunate with their casting. Joana Seara combined radiant looks with dramatic intensity as Juliet, and Ilona Domnich had all the agility required for Laura’s high notes, though her accented speech proved something of an impediment in getting her words across in the tricky acoustics of St John’s.
Mark Chaundy, though relatively unchallenged by the singing demands of Romeo, looked every inch the part and delivered his spoken lines with greater clarity than anyone else. The roles of Capulet and (Friar) Lorenzo are much reduced from Shakespeare’s originals, and fortunately the latter is merely a speaking role until Act 3, as Ian Priestley’s arrival was delayed by a late-running flight.
Act 3 opens with a choral set piece. With Juliet lying unconscious on her tomb, a small body of mourners processed through the church and united in an impressive and moving funeral chant (which might easily have been the model for Britten’s Albert Herring threnody that I have heard so much of recently).
As always, the acoustics of St John’s favoured the orchestra, and Matthew Halls with the London Mozart Players took full advantage in a score that, despite the serious subject, is full of Bohemian joi de vivre. Nigel Hook’s touring set and Pauline Smith’s costumes conveyed an air of pre-Raphaelite sumptuousness, and I was pleased to see an excellent turn out for this rarity.
Oh, and I should mention that this is the “and they all lived happily after” version of the story with Juliet reviving just before Romeo swallows his poison, Capulet reconciled to the match, allowing the curtain to come down amidst general rejoicing.